Article for Teachers

Bad Titles

Breaking the rules can lead to better student poetry.
Image of two pairs of mismatched socks.

This lesson plan was originally designed for a class of tenth graders, though it can be adapted for younger students. It is intended to free students from any limiting ideas they may have that “good” poetry has to be boring, completely serious, or totally planned out in advance.

The exercise is designed to give students a pleasurable, creative, and independent experience while also encouraging them to work together as a group. It should take about an hour and can lead to students’ writing poems in class or as a homework assignment. Poetry is best when writers are breaking rules, and this exercise is designed to encourage some of that sort of behavior. So obviously, you need to have a class that can be trusted to enter this place of potential chaos.

 

STEP 1
Read (or ask a student to read) the following titles of published poems. Have them make notes while they’re listening about all the different kinds of titles they hear.

“Zeus: A Press Conference,” “Anecdote of the Squid,” “Poem Without Voices,” “My Wife Is Shopping,” “The Paste Man,” “A Milk Truck Running into a Crazy Maid at the Corner of Getwell and Park,” “A Man in Blue,” “Rooms,” “I Run with a Pair of Compasses Stuck in the Back of My Head,” “At the Hairdresser,” “America,” “Laura Cashdollars,” “Breakfast,” “No One Will Write Poetry,” “The Little Box,” “Black Horsemen,” “To My Dead Sister,” “Terror Is My Business,” “The Death of Checkers,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “The Underpant,” “O Cleveland,” “Yes, Señor Fluffy,” “The Recipe,” “Prime Numbers,” “People Are Tiny in Paintings of China,” “At an Elaborate Summer Barbeque Without You,” “The Plural of Jack-in-the-Box,” “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” “What Comes Naturally?” “Don’t Get Too Personal,” “Poor Britney Spears,” “The Story of White People,” “Is This Why Love Almost Rhymes with Dumb?” “Having a Coke with You,” “First Dances,” “In the Movies,” “Anxiety,” “Do Not Mind the Bombs,” “Inside the Jacket,” “Crescent Moon on a Cat’s Collar,” “Let Me Tell You About My Father, She Says,” “A Small Table in the Street,” “Are You Ticklish?” “So Long, Santa,” “Things to Do in New York City,” “American Express,” “People of the Future.”

Ask your students to describe all the different kinds of titles they heard. (Likely they will say that some are serious and others are funny, many contain the names of places or people, some are parts of sentences or entire sentences, and so on.) Do they find them funny, surprising, silly, trivial, exciting? Ask them to imagine what some of these poems might be about. Can they imagine a funny poem with a serious title? Vice versa? How are these poems similar to, and different from, the titles of poems they have read in the past?

 

STEP 2
After talking for a few minutes about these titles, ask each student to quickly write twenty impossible titles, titles so awful, so ridiculous, so silly, so unpoetic and unprofound that the students could never imagine them belonging to any poems. The worse, the better—but nothing profane or offensive. Ask students to write as many different kinds of titles as possible: one-word titles, sentence fragments, complete sentences, questions, negative constructions, jokes, titles with abstractions, titles with concrete objects in them. The more variety, the better.

 

STEP 3

Now ask the students to pass their titles to the person next to them. (If you have time, or a relatively small class, you can have each person read some or all of their titles aloud, though it is better to have the students read aloud in the next step.)

Each student should then pick the five most ridiculous titles from the paper they have been passed and write a first line for each.

 

STEP 4
Ask students to read their five titles and first lines aloud. Students should read them together, as if they were the beginnings of poems. Discuss with the students why they might have gravitated toward certain titles and what made them think of particular first lines. Do any of these seem especially promising or fun? Why? Ask students whether they have ideas about how they might continue the poems. Invite the entire class to share in the discussion.

 

STEP 5
As either an in-class writing exercise or a homework assignment, ask each student to finish one of the poems he or she has started. Have students read their poems aloud at the end of class or at the beginning of the following class.

 

 

Note: If your class is small enough, have students write their twenty titles on the board. You can talk about all the different sorts of titles and ask the students to think about what sorts of poems might come out of them. Then have students pick numbers out of a hat and choose their five titles from the board in that order, one at a time. (Ask them not to choose one of their own titles.) It’s exciting to see which students like which titles and to watch students react with dismay when one of the titles they really wanted is gone or with delight when one is still available.

This essay was originally published in Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry (2013), a co-publication of the Poetry Foundation and McSweeney's Publishing, edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan.
Originally Published: December 14th, 2015

Poet and editor Matthew Zapruder was born in Washington, DC. He earned a BA in Russian literature at Amherst College, an MA in Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.   Zapruder’s poems employ nuanced, conversational syntax to...